In case you haven’t noticed, it’s iPhone 6S Review Day. Apple lifted the embargo earlier today and since then, the first reviews of the latest iPhones have been popping up around the Web like crazy.

If you’re a bit saturated from so much iPhone-related stuff and want to read something different, I humbly suggest checking out my review of the Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 Micro Four Thirds lens instead, which was also published today over at Tools & Toys.

This review was a bit bittersweet for me to write. I love the 35mm-equivalent focal length, and I’ve tried really, really hard to love this small Olympus lens. However, no matter how much I shot with it, the reality is that it’s just a couple steps below other MFT lenses in terms of performance.

It’s still an overall good lens for casual use, but some of its quirks make it quite unreliable for critical work, and that’s ultimately a deal breaker for me.

The review was also bittersweet to write because in all likelihood, it was my last MFT-related review. As regular readers will know, I recently switched over to the Full Frame Sony A7 II for my daily shooting, which means I no longer need or can afford to own the Olympus OM-D E-M10 that has been my main camera for over a year.

With that in mind, and now that I’m done with all the MFT gear reviews I had in the pipeline, I will be looking to sell my E-M10 pretty soon. Of course, the Olympus 17mm will be going with it, but I can’t really say I will miss this lens nearly as much as some of the other excellent pieces of glass I got to own over the past year.

Over four years after its introduction, the Micro Four Thirds system continues to offer the perfect features for the aspiring photographer — small, light, and affordable gear — but it also packs one hell of a punch when it comes to performance and image quality. These are tools many professional photographers use routinely, and with good reason.

The old days of sensor-shaming are over, as today’s mirrorless cameras have little reason to envy traditional DSLRs, and even surpass them in several non-trivial metrics. Personally, it’s been a thrill to shoot with the E-M10 all these months, and I can honestly say that camera was largely responsible for my current love affair with photography.

If you’re considering an entry point into the photography world, you could do a lot worse than starting off with this incredible camera — or, if you can afford it, the newly-released E-M10 Mark II.

Mirrorless is here to stay, and we’re all better off for it. As for the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, I just hope Olympus has a redesign in the works, because with just a few minor tweaks this could be one of my favorite lenses ever. As it exists today, though, it falls well short of that goal.

Head on over to Tools & Toys for the full review.

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Sleep tracking and the Apple Watch →

September 22, 2015 |

Up to now, the lack of sleep tracking was one of the biggest omissions from the Apple Watch’s initial feature set when it comes to fitness and daily activity tracking. Sleep is an integral part of health and fitness, and practically all other competing fitness trackers have been able to track sleep for years.

The Apple Watch actually does have all the necessary sensors to track sleep, but it was designed with the assumption that you’ll charge it overnight, which means you won’t be able to wear it at night in order to track your sleep. Or so we thought.

Enter Sleep++, the new Apple Watch app by Mr. Underscore, David Smith. Sleep++ promises to track your sleep and still leave you with enough battery life to use your Apple Watch normally throughout the day. From Mike Bates’s initial impressions:

This is all well and good, but the main concern I had with such an idea was the battery life of the watch and if I’d still be able last all day if I wasn’t charging overnight. From my extremely brief testing (cough - only one night so far cough) it seems as if David’s proposed solution - charging the watch when you’re getting ready for bed and then again when you’re getting ready in the morning - might actually work out as he’s indicated.

Apparently, it does:

Having said that, last night I was able to charge my watch up to 86% before bed, track my sleep in airplane mode overnight, wake up with 80% still left, and then charge the watch fully up to 100% while I got ready this morning. I tracked my sleep data, it got fed into HealthKit, and I got to wake up with my watch tapping my wrist as opposed to a blaring alarm. Not bad.

This is very, very interesting. It’s still mostly a workaround or, if you will, a hack, but it does allow you to use a feature that until now remained inaccessible.

The fact that this workaround is at all possible is a testament to how quickly the Apple Watch’s battery can be recharged. The only asterisk I can think of is whether it will have a negative impact on the battery’s useful life in the long run.

The fact that the Apple Watch, as many other consumer electronic devices, indicates a 100% charge after a few minutes doesn’t mean it’s really fully charged. There are some benefits to leaving devices to charge overnight, so that they continue to be plugged in for a few hours after their battery indicators hit 100%.

I guess if there are some negative side effects to doing this, once apps like Sleep++ become popular, we’ll start hearing about them soon enough.

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September 19, 2015

Just like some weeks are mostly boring, there are others when catching a break seems all but impossible. This was undoubtedly the latter. Let’s get to it.

Issue #15: To block or not to block, that is the question

What a week. From Ahmed’s unfortunate time in the spotlight, to the ad-blocking wars that have just begun, there’s been plenty of interesting writing to keep you busy for a good while. Grab your favorite beverage and get comfy.

How will Ahmed Mohamed’s story play out in Texas? | Vauhini Vara →

Before we get into the meat of the largely-inconsequential-but-for-some-reason-Earth-shattering-right-now Internet Controversy of the Week, let’s take a minute to shine a light on Ahmed’s story.

You’re no doubt familiar with the particulars of Ahmed’s case by now: a smart 14-year-old Muslim kid from Dallas who built a clock that didn’t really look like a bomb, but got arrested for it anyway, just on the off-chance that it was. The entire situation was handled so poorly that in a matter of hours the entire Internet was set ablaze over the case, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed trending worldwide, and even prompting an intervention from Barack Obama himself. Crazy.

All things considered, once the big splash had been made the situation got resolved fairly quickly. However, as is usual in these cases, there’s more to Ahmed’s story. In this piece for The New Yorker, Vauhini Vara analyzes the real implications of these potentially life-ruining situations, and how the Internet is effecting change1 on the way they’re handled:

Social media has, for the first time, allowed people to quickly and easily find support systems among the like-minded and far-flung; those support systems can even include the President. But, after a trending topic has been forgotten, people still have to live where they live. What, Dash wondered, would the child’s relationship with his principal and teachers look like in the future—and what about his family’s standing in Irving itself? Isn’t it conceivable, he asked me, that all the negative attention to the school and the town will, in the long run, harm the Mohamed family rather than help them?

Like it or not, Ahmed is now a world-wide sensation. What his brief time in the spotlight will do to him long-term, it’s still too soon to tell.

Just doesn’t feel good | Marco Arment →

Ok, time now for the all-important topic of the week, the ad-blocking wars. As you may know, iOS 9 introduced the ability to create content-blocking apps that make it possible to browse the Web without ever being tracked or seeing any ads. This may sound like a no-brainer to the casual reader, but the reality is that the situation is much more nuanced. For starters, not all ads are created equal, according to some, and there are certainly legitimate reasons to track some of a user’s behavior in order to improve a site’s design, for example.

However, in typical Internet fashion, all the nuance got thrown out the window the minute the first of these content blockers started hitting the App Store. In what is mostly an embarrassing “you-too” exchange of accusations, publishers and users have been blaming each other for it having come to this. I have a well-defined take on the ad-blocking issue, which I’ll share in a bit more detail later on, but for now, let’s just say I’m deeply disappointed by the kindergarten level of discussion we’ve seen so far.

Anyway, let’s get back on point. The first casualty in the so-called ad-blocking war was, ironically enough, the most popular ad-blocker of them all: Marco Arment’s Peace, which had been sitting at the top of the U.S. App Store’s paid app charts for about 36 hours when he decided it was time to pull the app from the store entirely. In a well-reasoned article in his blog, he lays down the reasons for his decision:

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.

Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.

Whether I agree with Marco’s take and decision on this is irrelevant. I deeply respect him and it, and that’s all that matters. I also appreciate the fact that he took the effort to explain it so openly, even going so far as to encourage customers to ask for a refund.

I personally didn’t buy Peace — or any other ad blocker, for that matter — but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t ask for a refund. After all, the app will probably continue to work for a pretty long time, so existing customers will get what they paid for in terms of utility. The fact that Marco, knowing this full well, still offered the refund anyway just goes to show that money isn’t the most important factor behind this decision.

It also goes to show that, even at a difficult time when he’s breaking the trust of his customers, he’s still a class act.

Blocking ads isn’t stealing | Jonathan Poritsky →

Moving on to another piece on the ad-blocking kerfuffle. On one side of the argument there are people who believe blocking ads is a legitimate course of action, and publishers are the ones to blame for having abused the implicit contract with their readers by tracking their every move and using overly obtrusive ads on their sites. Jonathan Poritsky makes an additional point: that Web ads are so annoying because they don’t even work that well for publishers to begin with, which is the reason they’re forced to show so many of them:

The reason you see so many ads load at once on so many sites is because they don’t pay very well. Publishers seem to think the answer to diminishing returns on ads is… more ads! I’m no economist but that sounds a lot like publishers are driving down the value of their own content big time. The value of those ads is already approaching zero.

On top of that they’re aggressively user-hostile. They gray out the page or take you to a splash screen. They cover up huge swaths of content or even paper over every image on the page. Worst of all they flip you out from the browser and into the App Store to buy something. And yes I have seen sites load all of these at once. Enough.

Browsing with ad blockers on mobile is a breath of fresh air. Sites load fast and take me right to the content I want to see. No bullshit. That publishers made a Faustian bargain to peddle terrible, obtrusive content isn’t my problem.

Popping the publishing bubble | Ben Thompson →

Ben Thompson on the reality of Web-based advertising:

It is easy to feel sorry for publishers: before the Internet most were swimming in money, and for the first few years online it looked like online publications with lower costs of production would be profitable as well. The problem, though, was the assumption that advertising money would always be there, resulting in a “build it and they will come” mentality that focused almost exclusively on content product and far too little on sustainable business models.

In fact, publishers going forward need to have the exact opposite attitude from publishers in the past: instead of focusing on journalism and getting the business model for free, publishers need to start with a sustainable business model and focus on journalism that works hand-in-hand with the business model they have chosen. First and foremost that means publishers need to answer the most fundamental question required of any enterprise: are they a niche or scale business?

Apple’s bloated website | Kirk McElhearn →

Much of the ad-blocking debate hinges on a very important topic: should websites respect their readers? The answer is an obvious yes, but how? Take Apple’s website, for example. It is widely considered a great website, with an attractive design that is fun to browse. People seem to love it. However, is it really respectful towards its visitors? As this piece goes to show, even Apple has a lot to change:

This web page was over 32 MB, and took 1.5 minutes to load. When most web professionals say that your web pages should generally load in less than 10 seconds, this Apple page is an aberration. Naturally, the time it takes to load is because of graphics, not text. So the top graphic loads first, progressively, then more graphics load. As I scroll down the page, I see blocks of text with no graphics around them, and then each graphic loads slowly. Scrolling on this page is painful. This is no way to present a product.

Respect is about more than a careful presentation of content. It needs to consider how that content is delivered as well. Abusing a reader’s data plan, processing power and battery life without a very good reason to do so, isn’t very respectful at all.

Working from home: my desk setup | Alex Cornell →

Alright, moving on. This is a cool post from the archives of Alex Cornell’s blog. If you like reading about other people’s creative setups, you’ll greatly enjoy this.

The end of the NASA window | Jason Kottke →

Interesting — and somewhat depressing — piece by Jason Kottke on the likely future of NASA:

The plutonium shortfall makes it impossible for NASA to plan future missions that would require it, but in the absence of specific mission needs, nobody wants to make any more. Solar-powered craft could eventually fill in the gap, but the technology’s not there yet.

So the stars get further and further away.

Ride the roof | Andrey Udorov & Pasha Volkov →

Super-cool photo-story on a few secret skateboarding locations in Moscow: the top of abandoned Soviet-era buildings. Unreal:

Moscow’s landscape is filled with Soviet-era buildings, many of them shuttered after the privatisation programme of the Nineties. Built for the people’s benefit, they are now shut away off from public access, patrolled by security guards, most of whom never dream of exploring the upper floors.

But it is the roof of the Moscow pavilion that brings us here. Because of its concave shape the roof looks like a giant skate ramp. My friends and I want to see if it can perform like one too.

So good. And the pictures are also incredible.

61 days off the grid, posted to Instagram of all places | Taylor Glascock →

This is a pretty surreal story: Rachel Bujalski is trying to spend 61 days off the grid, that is, disconnected from modern technology. However, it appears she’s not doing it exactly by the book:

Bujalski sleeps in her car and rises with the sun. She heads into town to find a coffee shop with Wi-Fi. She maps out markets, thrift stores, and art centers––places where she’s most likely to find off-the-grid residents. Instagram and social media has also been an immense help. Followers can track her whereabouts online, and contact people they know in the next town, making it easier for her to connect with subjects. “So far in almost every location, I’ve found someone to take me under their wing and show me around, which gets me inside access almost immediately and gains their trust right off the bat,” she says.

Oh, the irony.

Charlie Chaplin’s scandalous life and boundless artistry | Richard Brody →

As a lover of all things Chaplin, I highly recommend this piece by Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

Chaplin, on that boat in 1910, may have been joking about the triumphant destiny that awaited him in the United States, but once he had realized his basic dream of financial independence, he expanded the boundaries of what independence could mean. His self-realization involved an unprecedented artistic freedom that was bound up with his expansion of the burgeoning, still incipient art of the cinema. As Chaplin developed his on-screen persona, he also made explicit his sense of an artistic calling, through the increased refinement and scope of his films, through the audacious and socially critical subject matter, the anarchic tone, and the exacting craft by which he realized them.

Zeiss T* FE 55mm f/1.8 | Ken Rockwell →

And to cap the week off, what better than Ken Rockwell’s review of the Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 lens. I usually enjoy Ken’s reviews, and this time is no different:

This 55/1.8 is significantly sharper than any zoom for Sony, so it you really want to get all the pixels for which you paid with Sony’s latest cameras, you need this lens.

Like taking a foreign-language class for a language in which you are already fluent, this lens gets an easy A+ for anyone shooting with the Sony system.

There are very few lenses native to Sony’s unique E mount, whose short flange focal distance lets lens designers design superior lenses like this that cannot be made for SLRs. Because there is no flipping reflex mirror to clear, this lens has all the sharpness advantages of rangefinder lenses.

If shooting a Sony E-mount camera, you need one of these, and there are no real substitutes. Attempting to adapt a Sony or Alpha or MAXXUM lens will work, but be bigger, clunkier, and lack the optical performance.

If you’re reading this, just get one. Like a Porsche, there is no substitute.

You heard the man.


So where do I come down, exactly, on the whole ad-blocking debate? Let me explain.

First of all, I believe ad blockers are not the main problem of online advertising. Far form it. This is a system that’s been broken for years, possibly even decades, and ad-blockers are merely the latest evidence of that.

I don’t use one. For starters, I haven’t yet updated my iPhone to iOS 9, so I couldn’t have installed one even if I’d wanted to. The reason for that is I’m still working on an iOS 8 update of an app, and for that I need my phone to remain iOS 8-based for the next couple of weeks, at least. But I digress.

The real reason I don’t use one is that I don’t really feel like I need it. Over the years, I’ve gotten extremely good at ignoring Web ads, to the point where I don’t even see them anymore. That’s totally a thing, by the way.

Now, am I opposed to people using ad blockers? Not at all. Like Jonathan Poritsky said on the aforelinked piece, every user has the right to decide what gets loaded on their browser, and if certain tools offer more control over that, I’m cool with people using them.

That being said, what happens when people use these tools to block “legitimate” ads? That is, after all, the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Well, that’s a bummer for responsible publishers, no doubt, but it’s still merely a reflection of a reality that has long existed.

Do legitimate ads even exist anymore, anyway?

Let’s go back to last week for a moment, when ad blockers were still unavailable for the general public on iOS. If a user was so uninterested in a publisher’s ads back then that they couldn’t wait to install an ad blocker, was it really legitimate for that publisher to count the user’s pageviews for their own benefit?

I don’t think so.

I think most publishers — and I’m referring here to huge sites and independent publishers alike — had grown so focused on traffic and eyeballs that they’d forgotten to ask themselves a really important question: those ads I’m serving, do they provide any value to my readers at all, or are they merely tolerable nuisances?

If the answer is that your ads are tolerable at best, I’d say you have some soul searching to do.

When your readers don’t want to look at your ads, maybe it’s because those ads are not worth looking at to begin with. I’m no expert, but if you’re in that situation as a publisher, forcing your readers to look at them anyway may not be the smartest course of action.

Ad blockers will not be the end of online advertising, but hopefully they’ll bring about a positive change in the way publishers and advertisers interact with readers. In this war, it will not be publishers or advertisers who will receive the most damage, but those who have become rich by commoditizing a business that should have always stayed deeply personal.

Ad networks, I’m looking at you.

The value proposition that ad networks offer publishers and advertisers is pretty clear: just let us do our thing, and you’ll get relevant and profitable ads served automatically to your readers. You see, it’s the “automatically” part that’s the problem.

By commoditizing the entire ad industry, ad networks have basically run the entire online ad business model into the ground, effectively digging a very deep hole for themselves in the process. Whether some ad networks are less evil than others is irrelevant by now. After years of fighting diminishing returns with more of the same, the situation has finally become untenable.

Just saying “don’t block the good ad networks” is not solving the problem, it’s putting a band-aid on a severed limb.

At this point, it doesn’t matter how much people like John Gruber defend these supposedly good ad networks. The reality is — and people know it — that there’s no way to build a successful ad network without incurring in some of the bad practices they were supposed to address in the first place. You can’t participate in a massive network that rotates ads across tens of different websites and still claim that those ads are somehow tailored specifically to your readers.

Simply put, you can’t treat something as a commodity and still pretend it is super valuable. By relying on ad networks to do their job for them, publishers and advertisers were trying to have their cake and eat it, too. And the surreal thing is, they actually got away with it for years! Well, not anymore.

The way I see it, the burden falls squarely on publishers to defend their readers’ time and attention and protect their trust. By placing that trust in the hands of an ad network, as ethical and well-intentioned as that network may be, they were effectively taking a gamble. Admittedly, it’s been a gamble that’s worked out pretty well for them for a long time, but as Gruber himself said, a reckoning is coming.

If there is a way out of this ad-blocking conundrum it has to start by making online ads relevant and valuable again. And the only way that’s going to happen is if publishers start working directly with advertisers again to create actually relevant and useful ads for their readers, much like podcasting ads and native sponsored posts have been doing for years.

Just like Gruber has long had individually-booked sponsorship slots for Daring Fireball and The Talk Show, which he either sells himself or has someone else — an actual person — sell for him, it is now time for Web ads to be individually sold and self hosted, as well. If this proves to be an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to breathe life back into a long-doomed business model — and that may well be the case — then so be it.

If publishers, big and small alike, don’t start to genuinely respect their readers’ time and attention — as opposed to merely pretending to and offloading the actual work to a 3rd party — the only people responsible for their downfall will be themselves.

On that note, I think it’s time to close this week’s issue. I’m swamped with work these days, and I’ve already taken enough of your time.

It also looks like things are about to get even busier in the coming weeks. There’s another MFT lens review in the pipeline over at Tools & Toys, and I’m also hard at work on a couple of related projects that I hope will see the light of day soon, so there’ll be plenty of things to talk about over the week. There’s more to life than online ads, after all.

For now, enjoy the rest of your weekend and, as ever, thank you for reading.

  1. Effecting, yes. This one’s for you, Marco.

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The Solar System, to scale →

September 18, 2015 |

What an incredible idea by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh:

On a dry lakebed in Nevada, a group of friends build the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe.


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My second photo essay was published today at Tools & Toys and once again, Madrid is its protagonist. This time around we take a look at one of Madrid’s recently renovated food markets, San Antón:

Located in the centric quarter of Chueca and with 70 years of history, this impressive three-story building, known among the locals as Mercado de San Antón, has grown to become one of the most popular hangout places in town in recent years.

This essay is the first in a 3-part series on Madrid’s food markets. Over the past few years, many of Madrid’s old markets have been deeply transformed, incorporating most of the features traditionally found in bars and even restaurants into their spacious layouts. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the truth is that food markets are surprisingly great places for spending some time with friends, family or your significant other.

It’s no secret we love our food here in Spain, and these markets provide a great opportunity to taste several different bite-sized specialties from all over the Spanish geography. And of course, you can accompany these delicious treats with your beverage of choice, just the way we like it.

If that sounds awesome to you — and I promise you, it is — head on over to Tools & Toys to check it out.

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watchOS 2 delayed, won’t be released today →

September 16, 2015 |

It looks like Apple Watch wearers will have to wait a little longer for the first major update to watchOS. Matthew Panzarino, writing for TechCrunch:

Apple has delayed the release of watchOS 2, which was expected to be available today to owners of the Apple Watch.

“We have discovered a bug in development of watchOS 2 that is taking a bit longer to fix than we expected,” an Apple spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We will not release watchOS 2 today but will shortly.”

Via Daring Fireball.

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Federico Viticci reviews iOS 9 →

September 16, 2015 |

At 48,000 words, this is a massive undertaking by Federico. His much-anticipated review went straight to the top of my Instapaper queue, as it should do yours. Or better yet, just go read it right now.

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The O: wearable + app to never lose or forget anything →

September 15, 2015 |

Interesting and clever Kickstarter project. The O is a small wearable device you can attach to your essential items — like your smartphone, keys and wallet, for example. It will alert you whenever you leave an item behind via its companion smartphone app.

The project has less than 2,000 £ and 22 days to go to get funded, so it’s very likely to succeed. Check it out.

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Sony announces uncompressed 14-bit RAW files and 8 new FE lenses for the A7-series cameras →

September 15, 2015 |

Great announcement today from Sony on their Alpha Universe website:

Sony Electronics, a worldwide leader in digital imaging and the world’s largest image sensor manufacturer, has today announced user selectable Compressed and Uncompressed 14-Bit RAW image capture will be featured in the new α7S II once it arrives in stores this October.

Additionally, they have announced plans to add user selectable compressed or uncompressed 14-Bit RAW still image capture via firmware update to additional cameras beginning with the recently introduced α7R II full-frame mirrorless model.

And also (emphasis mine):

The α7S II and α7R II are compatible with Sony’s growing lineup of α -mount lenses, which now totals 64 different models including 13 native ‘FE’ full frame lenses. By early 2016, Sony will add an additional 8 new lenses to its FE full frame lineup, bringing the FE total to 21 lenses and the overall α -mount assortment to over 70 different models.

This announcement not only addresses, but downright eliminates the two greatest perceived flaws of the A7-series system. Sony is absolutely killing it lately.

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